This past weekend’s box office was a real photo finish. In first place was Christopher Nolan’s Tenet—the blockbuster earned $2.7 million in its fifth week on top, and has made $45.1 million domestically since Labor Day weekend. In second place, Kenny Ortega’s Hocus Pocus, a 1993 comedy about three witches who are resurrected in modern-day Massachusetts. It made $1.9 million, bringing its box-office total to $41.4 million in the 1,421 weeks since its release. With options like these, is it any wonder that American cinemas are beginning to question whether they can stay open this winter?
The second-largest theater chain in the country has already decided that it can’t. Cineworld, which owns cinemas around the world, including the Regal chain in the United States, announced yesterday that it is closing all of its locations, after the next James Bond film, No Time to Die, was pushed from November to April 2021. “We are like a grocery shop that doesn’t have vegetables, fruit, meat,” Cineworld CEO Mooky Greidinger told The Wall Street Journal. “We cannot operate for a long time without a product.” Since reopening in August, theaters have offered audiences only one big-budget blockbuster: Tenet. Without another, they’re doomed.
For months, movies such as Black Widow, Fast & Furious 9, Wonder Woman 1984, and Top Gun: Maverick have abandoned their planned premiere dates, but James Bond’s Thanksgiving release looked like it would hold fast. No movie brand is more global than Bond—the previous entry, Spectre, made 77 percent of its $879 million gross outside the U.S. and Canada—and international cinemas are in far better shape than American ones. On top of that, No Time to Die’s distributor, MGM, needs a huge hit after recently resuming major operations. The need for a guaranteed big opening was why No Time to Die was delayed in the first place: Originally intended for April 2020, its initial postponement made it the first movie domino to fall in the early days of the pandemic.
Until last week, the plan was for Bond to debut in November, offering a lifeline to cinemas that were drowning without new blockbusters. MGM even launched an official podcast ahead of the movie’s release (new episodes have now also been postponed). Then, just days ago, the studio suddenly reversed course, pushing the film to next Easter weekend and essentially ensuring that a major action blockbuster won’t hit theaters before Christmas at the earliest, when Wonder Woman 1984 is due out. While we don’t know exactly what prompted the turnaround, there was likely concern over Tenet’s depressed U.S. grosses (theaters in big markets such as New York and Los Angeles remain closed) and rising COVID-19 case numbers in Europe, particularly Britain, where leaders are mulling a second shutdown.
From MGM’s perspective, it’s a logical enough decision. Why roll the dice this fall, when American audiences are still reluctant to return to theaters, if the pandemic might ease up by April? But for cinemas, the Bond delay is catastrophic. Share prices for major chains dropped after the announcement, and the ratings agency S&P estimated that AMC (America’s biggest theater chain) has enough cash for just six months of operation, unless conditions materially improve. Though more than 80 percent of AMC’s theaters are open across America, they’re stuck playing warmed-over material to tiny audiences.
Cineworld clearly thinks the current situation is impossible to sustain. Greidinger told Deadline that New York’s rigidity about reopening theaters was part of the problem—though chains have reopened in suburban Connecticut and New Jersey, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has shown little interest in lifting restrictions in his state. “The governor allows in-restaurant dining, bowling alleys, casinos, and others, but he will not allow cinemas,” Greidinger said. “Cinemas have been open all over the world and in the U.S. for over two months now, and there have been no COVID cases up to now, thankfully.” But he also admitted that the delay of No Time to Die had been “the last straw.”
The truth is, no single factor is to blame. Theaters have been lobbying to reopen for months, even suing states in some cases, as well as fighting with studios that have put their movies out online. But given the dire state of the pandemic in America, audiences were simply never going to flock back, and the stateside release of big movies such as Tenet just lent theaters more false hope. That film has done quite well globally, having grossed $307 million since its release, but it couldn’t rescue cinemas alone. Only a national environment where people feel comfortable sitting in a room with other strangers could save cinemas. But that prospect feels as distant now as it did six months ago.